- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 5, 2006

One student wants to enhance her theatergoing experience and do it “from the inside.” Another needs to perfect his public speaking skills. A third hopes to act one day on New York stages.

These are just three of the many adults — amateur thespians at heart— taking drama classes on evenings and weekends at local theaters under the tutelage of professional instructors.

Getting started is easy — no prior experience is necessary and no audition is required for most of the courses. But keeping motivation alive can be a challenge for those who consider the classes a springboard for a career change.

Fortunately, the course topics range widely so the activity need not become one’s lifework.

At Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory, 1333 P St. NW, the oldest school of its kind in Washington, the entry-level class is titled “The Actor’s Process,” followed by “Principles of Realism” and “Character and Emotion” on the next level. Students in the first class are taught the rudiments of self-expression, often by means of pantomime — doing without words.

More advanced students have a choice of classes in five other categories, including auditioning, directing and improvisation.

The so-called core acting curriculum is the most popular, and often has a wait list. A relatively new class titled “Standard Stage Speech” is directed primarily at students whose native language is not English and who need to learn how to modify regional or foreign accents. French native Stephanie Guerrovich, 30, of Arlington, a hotel industry employee, signed on in June to learn how “to loosen up — to not be so self-conscious” — and to strengthen her voice.

Studio’s alumni number around 8,000 and include some of the area’s most renowned stage presences. Actor Jeorge Watson, 40, now on tour with a Kennedy Center children’s production, attended for three years in the mid-1990s to perfect his talent after having tried two or three other schools. He says he stayed with Studio (www.studiotheatre.org/conservatory) because it was “more like a university or college setting” and he approved of “the Stanislavski method,” which is Studio’s approach. (Konstantin Stanislavski was an influential early-20th-century actor-director who believed actors should dig deeply into their own emotions to conceptualize a role.)

Andrea Spitz, 30, of Silver Spring, a computer sales consultant by day, has attended “off and on” for three years and even met her husband while taking a Studio course. She says they both “would quit our jobs in a heartbeat and go to Broadway” if they could. An advantage of Studio, she notes, is that it “carries weight with casting directors.”

Currently taking a comedy class, she has met others who signed up for courses simply because “they had a fear of public speaking and here you have to perform every week.” A friend of hers is a professional magician who attends to polish his skills.

Studio Theatre founder and conservatory head Joy Zinoman says emphatically that courses are designed to be rigorous — “nobody is treated like a dilettante” — and are taught by working actors, directors and choreographers, some of whom have been instructors for 20 years or more.

“I don’t care what people’s motivation is,” she says, after remarking on the number of lawyers she has noticed who may come because they have dreams and may have the desire to communicate in ways different from everyday life, while others come wanting to tell stories in the dark.

One attorney who started at Studio ended up quitting law and moving to New York to try his luck in the theater world, confirms Roma Rogers, Studio’s director of education who had an earlier career as a cosmetician.

All schools claim a professional faculty and small classes, often with no more than 10 or 12 members each. Most offer three semesters a year with a reduced summer session and have young adult and sometimes even younger children’s classes. Price per course ranges from $195 to $375, with the average course costing just under $300. An “admissions counselor” is available most places for guidance in choosing the right class for individual goals.

Shakespeare Theatre Company (www.shakespearetheatre.org/education) calls its program Master Acting Classes to signal that teachers are masters of the craft, according to training programs coordinator Wyckham Avery. She will be teaching a spring course in commedia dell’arte called “The Comic Mask,” meant to enhance students’ “ability to make bold choices as actors through the freedom of the mask.”

Currently, 10 classes are available, most emphasizing the classical training directed at performing Shakespearean plays, but there also is a 20th-century American drama class concentrating on modern plays as seen from an actor’s point of view. All classes are held at the theater’s administrative offices at 516 Eighth St. SE, and in rehearsal space across the street.

“About 30 percent of the [students enrolled] are thinking of getting into [acting] seriously,” Ms. Avery estimates.

The spring term at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW, begins Sunday and goes until May 11 for all skill levels, but is primarily for adults 18 and older.

“We specialize in a heightened sense of reality,” says managing director Kevin Moore, with many of the classes taught by “actors willing to take steps beyond the normal.”

Offerings range from a course called “Exploding the Text,” described on the theater Web site (www.woollymammoth.net/outside/theatreschool.html) as “an intermediate study class for those who like to learn on their feet and think on the fly” to “Advanced Scene Study” intended for professionals polishing their craft.

Yvonne Lee, 42, of Silver Spring, is a government lawyer who had been an acting major at Howard University. She says she wanted to “reintroduce” herself to her creative side when she chose to go to Woolly Mammoth while considering whether to pursue a graduate degree in theater.

Theatre Lab (www.theatrelab.org), which is moving this month to 733 Eighth St. NW, takes care of some 1,000 students a year, according to co-director Deb Gottesman. Their offerings, she says, are “process oriented” with most subscribers signing up for “personal enrichment.”

Washington Improv Theater (www.washingtonimprovtheater.com), 916 G St. NW, emphasizes unscripted theater and has drawn people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including a former figure skater and a former foreign war correspondent, according to spokeswoman Natasha Rothwell.

“I think all are interested in exploring what it means to live life without any rules,” she says. “The foundation of improvisation isn’t performance. We give them tools that are in play both on stage and in their everyday actions.”

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